In 1893 Chicago, Alter Rosen lives on Maxwell Street, a neighborhood populated by Jewish immigrants like himself who have recently arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. Alter’s life is difficult. He feels lucky to have found a job at a Yiddish newspaper when so many must work in dangerous slaughterhouses and textile mills. Alter works hard and saves as much money as possible to pay for his mother and sisters to join him in America. It’s a task he must undertake alone, after his father died during their own voyage two years ago. Alter must also keep his feelings toward other boys, especially his friend and roommate, Yakov, to himself.
There are new tensions in the neighborhood to deal with as well. Despite the excitement over the World’s Fair, a series of disappearances—all teenage, Jewish boys—have troubled Alter’s community. When Yakov is found dead, the police declare it an accident and show no interest in investigating further. As Alter assists in the ritual cleansing of Yakov’s body, something strange happens: Alter becomes convinced Yakov is alive, feels their souls cleave together and then passes out. When he awakens, he feels changed by the experience, convinced that Yakov was murdered and determined to find answers.
With help from Raizel Ackermann, a passionate anarchist and reporter for the Arbeiter Zeitung newspaper, Alter tracks down leads about Yakov and the other missing boys. His search reconnects him with Frankie, a charismatic criminal he knew during his early days in Chicago. Working together, the three race against time to uncover heinous crimes of abuse, coercion, corruption and hatred committed against the backdrop of the Gilded Age’s grand ambitions and gory underbelly.
Author Aden Polydoros’ third traditionally published novel is a gorgeous, disturbing, visceral and mystical experience. Alter is an exemplary historical fiction protagonist. His perspective, opinions and concerns are fitting reflections of his time, religion and cultural background, but his journey of growth and self-acceptance will satisfy contemporary readers. The inclusion of a subplot drawn from Jewish folklore complements the primary narrative perfectly and adds a clever ticking clock to the story, and though the novel is long, it rarely loses momentum. The relationships between Alter, Raizel and Frankie are tender and playful and provide brightness amid an otherwise dark story.
The City Beautiful is steeped in vibrant historical detail, including the exhilarating but superficial atmosphere of the World’s Fair, the vile working conditions of the meat industry, the burgeoning socialist and workers’ movements and the era’s wave of Jewish immigration to America. Polydoros pulls no punches when depicting the horrifically inhuman treatment that workers (many of whom were children) experienced during this time, which some readers may find distressing. His unflinching and well-rounded depiction of Jewish American and immigrant history makes The City Beautiful a superb addition to the ranks of YA historical fiction.